As an impresario, bandleader, orchestrator, music publisher and theatre producer, Jack Hylton dominated popular dance band culture in Britain and Europe during the 1920s and 30s. Hylton and his band made regular tours to Germany during the 1930s during the time that the Nazis were banning jazz music. During the Second World War, Jack Hylton and His Orchestra disbanded, having out-sold every other band in Europe and broken records for record sales and box office takings. Hylton subsequently became a director at Decca records and a theatre and television producer, bringing musicals such as Kiss Me, Kate, Camelot and Kismet to the West End.
Hylton (originally Hilton) was born near Bolton in Lancashire. His father was an amateur singer, and the young Jack Hylton learned the piano and accompanied his father at the family pub, the Little Lever, earning him the nickname the ‘Singing Mill-Boy.’ By the age of 13, Hylton had joined a performing troupe in Rhyl, and had become musical director of a touring company by 19. He moved to London and played as a relief pianist (playing while the big band had a break) for the 400 Club and the Stroud Haxton Band. Hylton married bandleader Ennis Parkes in 1913, although they later separated.
During the First World War Hylton became musical director of the band of the 20th Hussars, and later Musical Adviser in the entertainment section of the Navy and Army Canteen Board (NACB, later NAAFI). After the war Hylton played with the Queen’s Dance Orchestra and began arranging American popular songs by the American bandleader Paul Whiteman for his own dance band, Jack Hylton and His Orchestra. They started performing as a show band (not just for dancing) and enjoyed a record 36-week residency at the Alhambra Theatre London in 1925-6. With HMV they sold nearly 4 million records in 1929; in 1931 Hylton signed with Decca, a relatively new label, and later became a director and shareholder in the company. He also began publishing and selling sheet music.
In 1927 Hylton and his band travelled to Paris and Berlin for their first ‘continental tour.’ They returned to the Scala in Berlin for a month-long residency at the end of 1928, and would return every year until 1938. The continental tours during this time also included Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and Czechoslovakia; in 1932 Hylton was awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French government for services to France and to music. In 1933 they were joined by the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a tour around Britain, France and the Netherlands, and in 1936 Hylton and his band appeared in America.
During the 1930s the Nazis restricted performances and radio broadcasts of jazz music, describing it as ‘degenerate,’ and associating jazz with those deemed by the regime to be ‘undesirable,’ such as black people and Jews. In 1935 Hylton and his band commenced their fourteenth tour to Europe accompanied by the esteemed American jazz tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins was denied entry to Germany because of his race, but Hylton and his band continued their tour without him and played for eight days at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. Instead, Hawkins travelled to France to play with jazz musicians such as Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, before rejoining Hylton’s band in London. Duke Ellington had also been denied entry to Germany because of his race, and the bandleader Benny Goodman’s records were forbidden because he was Jewish. Interestingly, Fats Waller’s records were not immediately banned because the Reichsmusikkammer did not realise that he was black.
Many German people continued to enjoy jazz music and in 1937 the German daily newspaper B.Z. am Mittag reported that Joseph Goebbels attended one of Jack Hylton and His Orchestra’s performances in Berlin. When it was rumoured that Adolf Hitler might be attending a performance, Hylton was asked to ensure that none of his band members were Jewish, and that no one ‘of Jewish appearance’ should appear ‘on display’ at the front of the stage. There is little information about Hylton’s feelings towards the Nazis’ racial policies, but some of his band members have since reported that Hylton avoided answering questions about any specific players, and did not change his line-up. Band members later joked that they would raise their hands in salute and say, ‘Heil Hylton.’ In 1938 Hylton and his band appeared in a month-long run at the Scala in Berlin, breaking the record for box office takings. This would be their last performance together in Germany.
After war broke out in 1939, many band members were conscripted and it was suggested that members of the top bands in the country should be made exempt to form a national dance band to entertain the troops. Hylton wrote in music weekly magazine the Melody Maker that he did not agree with this: ‘the entertainment and dance band business is very important and essential, but winning the war comes first […] I am carrying on with the boys I have left.’ In April 1940 they performed at the Paris Opera House, but disbanded shortly after as so many members had received the call-up. Hylton took over financial responsibility of the then-struggling London Philharmonic from 1939, taking it on provincial tours around Britain under conductors Sir Malcolm Sargent and Basil Cameron. He also travelled to America to broadcast band music in 1941.
After the war Hylton continued as an impresario, managing and producing radio, theatre, film, ballet and circus performances, setting up Jack Hylton Television Productions Ltd, and producing musicals in London’s West End; he is rumoured to have ‘discovered’ a young Audrey Hepburn. In 1965 he took ill and died from a heart attack. Hylton is buried in Essex next to his second wife, Australian model Beverley Prowse. ‘I’d have it all over again,’ he said shortly before his death, ‘the same lot with the same errors and the same successes.’
By Abaigh McKee
Faint, P. (2014) ‘Jack Hylton Biography’ (www.jackhylton.com; accessed 17/10/2016)
Huener, J. and Nicosia, F. R. (2006) The Arts in Nazi Germany: Continuity, Conformity, Change (New York: Berghahn Books)
Kater, M. H. (1992) Different Drummers: jazz in the culture of Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press)
Lusane, C. (2003) Hitler's black victims: the historical experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi era (New York: Routledge)
Scott, D. B. (1994) ‘Incongruity and Predictability in British Dance Band Music of the 1920s and 1930s’ The Musical Quarterly 78: 2 (Summer) 290-315
Willett, R. (1989) ‘Hot Swing and the Dissolute Life: Youth, Style and Popular Music in Europe 1939-49’ Popular Music 8:2 (May) 157-163